Saturday, August 29, 2009

India to Nepal - January 4, 2009

We are off to Nepal on another cold, foggy day. The driver insisted that even though for once we have a nice tourist bus, it has no heating system, so despite everybody's being dressed pretty much in all the clothes we brought, we huddled and shivered through the morning.

Breakfast was in a huge, cold, unheated and unlighted dining hall of some sort of camp. Eggs and hot chai helped somewhat, and then we were on the road again through farm country on a two-lane highway that was actually just a series of potholes joined by bits of macadam. A typical Indian highway, which is why our previous long travel has been by train.

The fog finally lifted and it warmed enough for us to stop shivering, but not take our coats off.

Basically an uneventful day, watching wretched poverty and rotten roads morph into aspirational and more prosperous cities as we approached the border. [Over the next few blog entries you will see that we discovered a whole different lifestyle in Nepal, and this was the bare beginning of it seeping across the border.]

We left India with our last glimpses of dung art (pyramids constructed of the dried dung people use to heat their homes), and my favorite Indian mystery: goats in coats. There were lots of goats running loose everywhere we went, but some of them were wearing knit coats--and I was never able to find out why.

Because of the morning fog, we were one hour late arriving at the border, perfect timing as it turned out. It seems some Maoist leader was murdered today, and the border was closed till about an hour before we got there. So the backlog had cleared, and we had an easy time clearing immigration, as these things go. Most of us had gotten Nepal visas before the trip, but the two people who hadn't had no problem getting them at the border. There seemed to be no customs at all--we weren't asked to open our luggage, or tell what was in it.

It felt as if we were there in the middle of the night, walking through the darkness as a group because there were very few dim lights, but really it was only evening at midwinter, when the days are short. We had to walk probably 500 yards and meet our bus on the other side of the border. Still, the cold damp darkness and the trek over uneven footing, plus having been told about the assassination earlier that day, made it seem exotic and dangerous, though it really wasn't.

At the hotel, which looks beautiful, the cable kept going on and off, and there was no hot water. Weary from the day on the road, all I wanted to do was take a shower and go to bed. No such luck!

I called the desk, they fixed it, and an hour later the water was warm enough to stand to shower in. Welcome to Nepal!

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

India - January 3, 2009 - Part Two

The afternoon activity was a trip into the Moslem area of Varanasi to see silk fabric being made. We were once more in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, watching people do magnificent work on hand looms. Three thousand families, we were told, earn their living in the silk industry. Horrible livings, in tiny dark rooms in squalor, while their children beg from tourists who come to see.

Then we went to a shop that sells the fruits of their labor, and just as with the carpet in Jaipur, I found some irresistible items, this time at irresistible prices--which only shows how little the workers are being paid.

It raises a moral dilemma, of course. People are being exploited, and I support that exploitation by purchasing the products they make. On the other hand, suppose all western tourists were to refuse to purchase these goods, and thus drive the owners who exploit them out of business. Three thousand more breadwinners would be out begging, and probably turned out of the miserable housing they live in to sleep in the streets and railway stations like the thousands of other homeless people. Exactly how would our refusing to buy improve the situation?

There are attempts to improve the situation of workers, particularly women, going on in India. Near Orchha we saw a paper factory, part of a project backed by Microsoft. It's a little worker-owned company that hand-makes specialized paper. The day we visited they were making water-marked paper for university diplomas. In the gift shop we saw gorgeous wrapping paper far too elegant to be found on the shelves at Wal-Mart. I would guess that they sell to Harrod's or Saks Fifth Avenue.

But that little place cannot employ more than fifteen people, and it is not a model to lift millions of people out of poverty because its product has only a limited clientele. Were the silk workers in Varanasi to form their own company and charge what their skills and time are actually worth, there would be only a tiny market for the resulting expensive hand-loomed silk. That market might support a dozen families, like the paper factory--but what about the rest of the three thousand families?

Clearly, we are not going to solve the dilemma of India's poverty--and it is particularly sad to see how inadequate sincere attempts are to the enormity of the problem. Furthermore, as tourists we are only superficial observers--we have no concept of the culture that produced and permits these conditions.

Well, cold thoughts for a cold day. In the cold high humidity, the laundry I did last night had not dried before it was time to pack. I dried most of my underwear with my hair dryer, but rolled the rest of the damp clothes up in a plastic bag to hang up again tomorrow night.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

India - January 3, 2009 - Part One

Cold, cold, cold!

We were out on the Ganga by 7am, but although daylight came there was no glimpse of the sun. It was foggy and damp and just plain cold. The weather has turned nasty, foggy, all over northern India. Planes are being canceled and trains are late, as ours was yesterday.

I have another complaint to add to the list for GAP tours: having us tromp all over the landscape without breakfast or even tea or coffee is unpleasant on the nicest day. When the day is cold, it is just plain cruel. No, there was no place to buy a hot drink in our hurried trip to the river, and then we were in the boats.

There were interesting things to see this morning--people bathing despite the cold weather, people doing laundry.

Our boat was surrounded by other boats selling souvenirs and trinkets, and we had fun teasing back and forth between the proprietors. I just wish some entrepreneur had thought to get some thermoses and sell chai!

The religious ceremony from last night continued on a smaller scale in daylight, and we saw one of the crematoriums in operation, with people bringing bodies draped in rich fabrics and garlanded with flowers.

We learned about the ghats, long steep flights of steps leading from temples, palaces, and guest houses down to the river. During monsoon season the water comes up to the buildings, but at this time of year fifty or sixty steps are revealed.

When we stopped for breakfast we first had to climb the ghat steps, and then enter a five-story hotel with the restaurant on the top floor. Both Lois and I, stiff and cold from the foggy, freezing boat ride, found it extremely hard to climb all those stairs--and then back down again.

After the boat took us back to where we had boarded, Bupendra did his quick-march thing again, through narrow lanes lined with shops offering fascinating merchandise we were not allowed to stop and look at. We had no map of the maze of lanes, and we had long since learned that it's nearly impossible to find anyone who speaks English, so deliberately staying behind was not an option.

Another note for GAP: tourists don't want to be dragged away from shopping areas, transported to a hotel ten kilometers from the action, and then told they can go back at their own expense and without a guide, but only if they want to miss the afternoon activity. What would be so terrible about allowing us half an hour in the market that is part of what we came to see? Why do we have to be force-marched through it? I, for one, have a ridiculous number of unspent rupees, and no neat trinkets to take home.

Watch for Part Two of January 3, coming soon.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

India - January 2, 2009 - Sleeper Train

Yes, it was one of those open bunk sleeper trains, not the four-person compartment we were promised in the tour literature. So I chained my suitcases to the bunk (they were under it and there was a loop for that purpose), and slept the sleep of exhaustion--par for this trip.

Sharing the compartment were an Indian couple, who saw me writing yesterday's journal entry and asked what I was doing. As the guidebook told us, once the conversation started they wanted to know all about me, including what my medicine is for and my age.

The train encountered fog, so we apparently crawled for most of the night. By morning we were three hours behind schedule, and when we finally pulled into Varanasi we were a full five hours late. So no orientation walk, and no chance for badly needed showers: we piled into bicycle rickshaws and were taken through miles of madhouse traffic to the river Ganges for a sunset boat ride.

Now this was lovely. We were rowed out onto the river while musicians played sitar and tabla for us, and as darkness fell we released dozens of little candle-and-flower floats representing our hopes, dreams, and aspirations. It was a grand sight, the boats on the river all trailed by the points of fire they had released.

Two loud, lively ceremonies were going on on shore, both dedicted to world peace. As far as I'm concerned, any attempt to achieve it is a good thing.

We went ashore and watched the ceremonies for a while, then walked through a most tempting bazaar to where our rickshaws were waiting. Lois and Eric and Kyle and I elected to come back to the hotel, as it is up at 5am again tomorrow to leave at 6 for sunrise on the Ganges. I desperately needed to wash my hair and do laundry. Tempting as it might be to let the cheap hotel service do it, I'm afraid they would wash it in the Ganges, the most polluted river in the world. Think that's a joke? You saw the "laundry" at Orchha. Here is a laundry in the Ganges:

India is still pounding laundry on rocks and drying it in the sun, still carrying things on heads instead of using even a wheelbarrow. And to western thinking the standard of cleanliness here is appalling. For example, last night on the train we were each given two neatly folded sheets, a pillow, and a blanket. A man collected them mid-morning--we thought to be laundered. But because our train ran so late, we saw him shake out the used bedding and carefully fold it again for tonight's passengers! How often is it used before being washed? I don't think I want to know!

Varanasi is dirty, of course, but not as dirty as Delhi or Agra. However, many many people wear painter's masks or scarves over their noses and mouths. When we went out on the river we learned why.

We saw what appears to be a huge bonfire on the riverfront. However, we learned it is a funeral pyre on which, right out in the open, are cremated 300 bodies per day. You see, to die in Varanasi is supposed to give the soul a direct trip to heaven. So people come here to die. This is the first place in India that we older women who use walking sticks are treated with respect--I think it is assumed that we are here to die! Along the river there are hotels specifically for people who come here for that purpose.

The air, thus, is filled with the dust of human remains, which many people do not want to breathe. As Lois put it, we breathed dead people.

To end on a positive note, though, the Ganges is a holy river in which many people swim and others drink from as a cure for illness. We plan to do neither--the pollution has been scientifically measured--but there is something we all noticed this evening. For all its pollution, the human remains floating in it, the filth poured into it daily ... the Ganges, or Ganga as it is called here, has no smell.